COVID-19 is causing an unprecedented interruption in business activity across Asia as global trade is projected to plummet by as much as 15%. Businesses are up against major liquidity constraints. As a result, payment practices are deteriorating. The Payment Practices Barometer survey of businesses in the region by trade credit insurer Atradius reveals a concerning trend of rising payment default risks, bad debts and insolvencies.
Late Payments Run Rampant
The survey, which included firms in China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates, found that late payments affect more than half (52%) of the total value of B2B invoices issued in Asia, largely due to liquidity restraints.
China and Singapore both are trending better than the region’s average, but India and the UAE are in the opposite boat. Late payments there amount to 66% and 72%, respectively, of the total value of B2B credit sales, locking up a significant portion of working capital for weeks at a time. Payment terms in both India and the UAE are significantly longer than in other countries surveyed (UAE has the longest, with 57 days on average). Companies operating in either India or the UAE need to be aware of the situation, as it can be a notoriously difficult and long process to recover outstanding receivables through local courts.
Across the board, late payments have a negative cascading effect for Asian firms: When businesses don’t receive timely payment, they in turn delay payment of invoices to their own suppliers or turn to domestic supplier credit for short-term trade financing. Chasing overdue invoices also ends up eating up a large portion of a company’s time, resources, and funds. One silver lining here: firms in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China appear to be quite successful in their collection efforts, indicating an overall benign business environment in these markets.
It is important to note that the survey was conducted in March 2020 and conditions have only further worsened since then. Supply chains have been thrown into chaos by the global spread of COVID-19. Major portions of the economy have been shut down for months, and it’s impossible to immediately resume normal supply chain operations. Every part of the production process is cloaked in uncertainty, causing enormous liquidity pressures. To make matters worse, after being less than fully operational for weeks or months, companies are also seeing a downgrade in their creditworthiness, making it difficult for them to obtain funding lines from banks.
Minimizing Credit Risk in the COVID-19 Era
Undoubtedly as a response to the current challenging environment, companies across Asia have expressed an increased commitment to tighter credit management.
To protect their accounts receivables, many Asian firms are increasingly turning to credit management tools and tactics, such as reducing single-buyer concentrations, self-insurance, credit insurance or demanding cash payment, letters of credit or payment guarantees. Self-insurance remains preferred for many companies in the region, especially India.
Many companies rely on a variety of tactics, and the popularity of each varies by country. In the UAE, for instance, bank guarantees and letters of credit are popular, whereas Hong Kong firms prefer to use self-insurance and trade credit insurance and Chinese businesses heavily rely on guarantees of payment prior to a credit-based sale.
Open account credit for B2B transactions is gaining popularity for Asian firms overall, as evidenced by a trend toward lengthening payment terms. The UAE leads the pack among surveyed countries in terms of percentage of the value of B2B sales made on credit (64%) and payment terms (57 days). For comparison, the regional average is 56% and 43 days.
A shift toward open account credit may be in part due to businesses wanting to offer more competitive sales terms amidst the U.S.-China tariff uncertainty or to better negotiate supply chain and trade challenges created by the pandemic. This is likely the case in Taiwan, for instance, where there was previously reluctance to use open account credit – now, credit-based B2B sales make up 54% of the total value of B2B sales, compared to 43% last year. China has also seen a reversal of typical payment practices and now more than half of B2B sales in the country are made on credit.
A Reason to Hope?
Even considering the challenging economic conditions and deteriorating payment practices, firms across Asia express optimism in the future, with many survey respondents expressing belief that both sales and profits in their industry will improve in the near term. But again, that was in March, and we have every reason to believe that this optimism has since faded.
While the total impact of the global pandemic remains murky, what is clear is that businesses throughout Asia would benefit from coherent credit management strategies that have buy-in from all parts of the business, including sales. It’s more important than ever for companies to know their customers, keep tabs on their customers’ financial standing and regularly review both their credit management strategies and the liquidity positions of trading partners.
Gordon Cessford is the president and regional director of North America for Atradius Trade Credit Insurance, Inc.